Out of the Zoo: Stories Matter

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about how she is putting her love of C.S. Lewis to good use in the community.—JF

The first chapter book I ever read in elementary school was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I watched the movie version first, which came out when I was six years old. A year or so later, I read the book–followed by the rest of the series. And so began my Narnia craze (which, to be honest, hasn’t completely gone away). Throughout my childhood, I read the Narnia books again, and again, and again. When the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out on DVD, my family borrowed fur coats from a friend and dressed up for a Narnia movie night at our church. I had all the Narnia merchandise you could imagine; I carried my bible in a Narnia bible case until the strap broke, put a Narnia paperweight on my desk and kept a tattered Narnia poster on my bedroom wall until I graduated high school. I still hang up my Narnia stocking and Narnia Christmas ornaments with pride every holiday season. While my Narnia obsession has died down slightly over the years, the story still holds a special place in my heart. It has strengthened my faith, inspired my imagination, and comforted me on some of my hardest days.

Every education major at Messiah is required to take a class called “Teaching English Language Learners in K-12 schools. The class, taught by Dr. Tina Keller, comes with a 20 hour cross-cultural requirement meant to encourage us to gain hands-on experience with English learners outside the classroom. At the beginning of the semester, Dr. Keller compiled a list of schools, churches, and organizations still holding English classes and encouraged us to sign up as a volunteer. After a few email exchanges with Anna Halbersma, the Director of Intercultural Ministries at Immanuel Christian-Missionary Church,  I agreed to co-teach a book club for English learners over Zoom on Thursday mornings. As you can probably imagine, when she told me we would be going through none other than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe I was beyond thrilled. 

I was pretty nervous on my first day of English teaching, but now Thursday morning is the best part of my week. For one, I’m getting a taste of what it will be like to be a teacher someday as I make lesson plans, write discussion questions, and attempt to coach students through technical difficulties. On top of that, I get to read my favorite book of all time, re-discovering the amazing story I love alongside my students who have never heard it before. Through the class I’ve met amazing people from all different places and cultures with unique stories of their own. I got to call a couple of them after class last week and they shared even more stories with me—about their families, their home countries, and their experiences learning English. I know it’s cliche for teachers to say that they learn more from their students than their students learn from them, but in the case of my English class the cliche is 100% true.

Stories are so powerful. They’re important too, and there are so many of them to learn. They teach us more about the world and all the different people living in it. Discovering people’s stories is one of my favorite things in the whole world. I think that’s why I love history so much. After all, as historians, it’s our job to learn about people’s lives—who they were, where they were from, and what mattered to them. The world is full of interesting people with fascinating lives, just waiting to share their experiences with anyone who will listen. In fact, it always has been. There are stories all around us just waiting to be uncovered. So let’s pick up a shovel and start digging.

Out of the Zoo: Do Better

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie considers lessons she has learned from studying the history of dueling in early America—JF

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about Alexander Hamilton’s “deathbed conversion.” Ten and a half months later, I’ve returned to researching the faith of our ten-dollar founding father. I’m particularly fascinated by the religious implications of dueling–the means by which Hamilton met his tragic end. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, dueling was an established method by which men could settle their disputes and restore their honor. Though it was illegal in many places, challenges were still made and accepted. Men still perished on the dueling grounds–including Hamilton’s own son Phillip. Christian ministers often spoke out against the practice. One minister, Reverend Benjamin Moore, even denied Hamilton’s initial request for communion from his deathbed, solely because he had fought in a duel.

This past week, I’ve been sorting through Lyman Beecher’s sermon, “The Remedy for Dueling.” The sermon is extensive–55 pages in length–and cannot be easily summarized in a few sentences, or even a 600 word blog post. Beecher equates dueling with murder and exhorts all who practice it to change their ways. Further, he calls Christians to take a stand against the cult of honor by refusing to vote for duelists. He voices his distress regarding the flawed character of public men, but also chides Americans for not encouraging them to do better. Beecher writes, “But how has it come to pass (if true) that so many public characters are immoral men? It is because we, the people, have not even requested them to behave better. We have never made it necessary for them to be moral.” Beecher condemns the behavior of duelists, but his sermon does not end there. He concludes by challenging men of honor to change their evil ways. He spurs his congregation–and even the duelists themselves–toward love and good deeds.

A couple summers ago, I worked my first summer at a traveling day camp called Springhill. Every day–and sometimes twice a day–all of our campers gathered for high-energy large group sessions. We danced, sang songs, played games, and ended each session with a skit. The heroes of the story that year–Agent M and Double J–were top-secret spies on a mission in the jungle; they wore badges and carried blasters. Meanwhile Dr. Con–the villain of the story–tried to keep Agent M and Double J from finishing their mission. Dr. Con spoke in a nasally voice and wore a yellow polo shirt–complete with white knee-high socks, glasses, and a fake mustache. 

As counselors, my coworkers and I tried to make large group sessions as exciting as possible. We yelled and danced and jumped around, and interacted with the skit so our campers would be engaged.  So at first, we thought it might be a good idea to boo Dr. Con whenever he shuffled onstage–after all, he was the bad guy. It didn’t take long for our campers to catch on and start booing with us. But things quickly got out of control–the boos got so loud that they distracted from the important gospel story the skit was supposed to tell. Some kids gave up booing entirely and just started screaming–so loud that no one could hear any of the lines. It was obvious that something needed to change. So, instead of booing Dr. Con, we decided to shout “Do better! Do better Dr. Con!” I can’t say the booing immediately ceased, but soon enough our campers began to follow our example. Instead of screaming whenever Dr. Con showed up, they called him to do the right thing rather than continue in his old devious ways–to choose good instead of evil.

It might seem rather strange to compare an early 19th century sermon with a skit from a summer camp written over 200 years later, but I think both can speak into the moment we’re in right now. It’s now the middle of October, and the 59th Presidential election is less than three weeks away. It seems like almost every commercial that pops up on my television is a political advertisement. I’m still waiting for my absentee ballot, but millions have already voted. Many Americans see a clear hero and a clear villain in this chapter in our country’s story, while others aren’t too thrilled about either of the men on the ballot.

Yet before we sulk that “so many public characters are immoral men” we should ask ourselves if we “have even requested them to behave better.” Have we really called for change, or are we enabling complacency? Does character really matter to us? Do our votes reflect that? At the same time, even if there is a clear “bad guy” in our personal political narrative, we should not boo them off the stage. We shouldn’t yell so loud that we can’t hear anything they have to say. Instead, we should offer encouragement. We must urge them to do the right thing rather than continuing in their old ways, to choose good instead of evil. Instead of “boo,” let us say, “Do better!”

Out of the Zoo: Coronavirus Diary

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie gets us up to speed on coronavirus at Messiah University—JF

A month and a half into the semester, Messiah University has settled into a new kind of normal. We’re getting used to shouting answers to discussion questions so that others can hear us from behind our mask. We know now to check our emails regularly in case a professor decides to meet over zoom last minute–due to COVID exposure or otherwise. We’ve become unphased by the strange microphone headsets our professors wear, relatively unconcerned with the ever-fluctuating number of students who tune in to class remotely. We’re finding creative ways to connect with our families and friends when we can’t go home over fall break or see them in person. Certainly none of these situations are ideal, but we’re getting used to them anyway.

After a spring and summer of live-streaming church, I’ve finally returned to in-person worship. The church that I attend when I’m at school has been holding all of its services outdoors in a huge field, which makes social distancing much easier to maintain. While this season has shown me that the Church is so much more than a place, it felt good to be back, singing with other believers and listening to a sermon in church clothes instead of pajamas. Doing Young Life ministry this year has been challenging in many ways, but my team has been making it work. We’ve been hosting all our Young Life events outside–at parks, around campfires, and in backyards–and require students to bring a mask. We’ve lucked out in terms of weather so far, but we’re making preparations for when the weather gets colder and we may not be able to gather in large groups. 

We’re expecting to get an email sometime this week about changes to Messiah’s COVID restrictions. There have been 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on campus since the beginning of the year–17 students and 2 employees. Our numbers are still relatively low, but the slight uptick in cases has many on edge. Nonetheless, we’re still hoping that Messiah will keep loosening-up the rules to give us more things to do on campus. Since we can’t go into each other’s apartments or dorms right now (even with masks on) students have been taking trips off-campus to hang out. We’re all hoping that Messiah will decide that increased visitation is the lesser of these two evils.

In the meantime, Messiah’s campus has been abuzz with political fervour. Some students are certainly more passionate than others, but political conversations abound nonetheless–before class, during meals, and on social media. We talk about the issues that are important to us–issues like criminal justice reform, abortion and education. We talk about the pandemic. In other discussions, I listen to my friends and mentors express their concern about a lack of empathy and understanding on both sides of the political spectrum. We reveal our voting plans too, whether we’re voting by mail, in-person, or hand-delivering our envelopes on election day. I’ve been checking my mailbox periodically for my absentee ballot. My sister (who studies journalism at Northwestern University) got hers last week, so I think mine will come soon. I’m excited to vote in my first Presidential election, even though I won’t get a patriotic  “I voted” sticker to show for it.

Last Tuesday, I watched the first presidential debate. My housemate Chloe (another history major) and I shared a bag of popcorn as we watched Trump and Biden duke it out on stage, the script of the Declaration of Independence’s Preamble displayed on a blue backdrop behind them. Our housemate Rebecca, who grew up overseas, joined us too. She was born in the states, but had never watched a presidential debate. I told her she should at least watch the first 10 minutes of the debate so she would be able to understand Saturday Night Live’s parody video of it a few days later. To my surprise, she watched the whole thing. “It’s just so fascinating!” she said.

Six months into the coronavirus pandemic and a month and a half into school, much remains uncertain. Will COVID cases go up any more on campus? Will my friends continue to stay healthy and safe? Will we be able to keep Messiah open for the rest of the semester? Will I still be able to connect with my Young Life students when it’s too cold to meet in someone’s backyard? Will my absentee ballot come on time? If I’ve learned anything about this COVID-19 season, it’s that every answered question will be replaced by a new unanswered one. We grow, we adapt, we adjust, but there’s always one new thing to get used to. Uncertainty has become the new normal, change a strong and constant force.

Out of the Zoo: Joan of Arc

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reports on her class on the trial of Joan of Arc—JF

I loved The Lord of the Rings movies growing up. I watched them for the first time with my mom in elementary school–she skipped all the parts that were too scary or gross. I didn’t really know what was going on, but when I watched them again a few years later I understood more. After that, the Lord of the Rings saga became a staple in our family–for sick days, movie nights and especially long car trips in our Dodge minivan with built-in television screens. My cousin Abby, who is now a children’s librarian in the Grand Rapids area, even took my siblings and I to see a midnight showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug when we were in eighth grade.

One of my favorite parts in The Lord of the Rings movies is a scene from The Return of the King. As Frodo and Sam draw ever nearer to Mount Doom, Legolas, Gimli, and several other familiar faces are left to defend Minas Tirith from a giant army of orcs. In the middle of the heated battle, the evil Witch-King shows up and picks a fight with Eowyn, a noblewoman from Rohan who disguises herself as a man to defend Middle Earth. “You fool, no man can kill me,” the Witch-King rasps, with Eowyn in a choke-hold. “Die now.” A few seconds later, Eowyn escapes from the his grasp and rips off her helmet to reveal long golden hair. “I am no man!” she exclaims, thrusting her sword forward and striking the Ringwraith with a fatal blow.

As a self-proclaimed tomboy in elementary and middle school, I wanted to be like Eowyn when I grew up. I probably could have quoted her battle scene in my sleep. She was bold and strong and brave–the ultimate example of girl power. I think I liked watching Eowyn because I saw some of myself in her–but I also saw the kind of person I wanted to be.

At Messiah University this semester, I’m taking a class about a young woman who reminds me a lot of Eowyn–Joan of Arc. She wasn’t a noblewoman from Rohan, but a peasant girl from Domrémy, France. To be frankly honest, I didn’t know much about Joan before my class started, and I still  have a lot to learn. But in the month that I’ve studied her thus far, I’ve encountered a devout, loyal, fearless young woman who cast aside gender norms, listened to God’s voice, and tirelessly sought the greater good of France. Like Eowyn, Joan was brave, and she wore men’s clothes into battle too! There’s no magic ring or Witch-King in Joan’s story, but she did live in a world that looks a lot different from our own. To someone who loves history–and even to someone who doesn’t–Joan’s life is just as intriguing as a fantasy novel. Like Eowyn, I see some of myself in Joan of Arc–in her stubbornness and her passion for justice. Yet in Joan I also see the kind of person I want to become–someone who is bold, courageous and full of faith.

I am grateful to my professor, Dr. Joseph Huffman, for introducing me to Joan of Arc this semester. As we progress through the transcript of her trial in the coming weeks, I hope I will better comprehend with greater fullness the woman she was–a task which may never be completely achieved. Because unlike movie characters, historical figures are complex and ever-changing. They can’t be easily captured in a few words on a page or a few minutes on a movie screen. Nonetheless, we still have lots to learn from them.

Out of the Zoo: 2,254 COVID Tests

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about the recent COVID-19 testing at Messiah University—JF

The mass email came on a Monday afternoon, right before my last class of the day. “Did you see that they’re doing mass COVID testing?”  a housemate asked a few minutes before I logged into zoom for “Theology and American Culture” with Dr. David Weaver-Zercher. “We all have to get tested? When? Why?” another housemate asked. I didn’t have time to read the email blast before class started, but I thought about it throughout the whole zoom call. Was there an outbreak or something? I thought. Should I pack an emergency bag just in case? Question after question filled my mind like air in a balloon. Even after class was over and I got the chance to read through the announcement, uncertainty still swirled in the pit of my stomach.

It didn’t take long for rumors to consume Messiah University like a raging wildfire. Some said the apartments designated for quarantining students were already almost filled to capacity. Others were convinced Messiah wouldn’t be open for much longer. A Messiah student I follow on Instagram even posted a picture with a friend holding up lyrics to a Taylor Swift song. In plastic red script the letterboard read “I think I’ve seen this film before… and I didn’t like the ending” with #covidsucks in the caption. Even though Messiah only had five confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the time, horror stories coming from other universities–of hundreds of positive cases and thousands more students in quarantine–had us all on edge. But can you blame us?

At the Harbor House—Messiah University’s special interest house for members of the honors program—we were particularly apprehensive. Because we are considered the biggest “nuclear family” on campus, all twelve housemates needed negative test results in order for us all to avoid an impromptu two week quarantine. We hoped and prayed against positive cases as testing approached, but an ominous sense of unease still hung in the air. “I have a feeling at this time next week things will be a lot different,” my housemate Emily Decker predicted grimly.

Messiah University’s staff did what they could to put students at ease. All week, professors let us know that they were praying for us. They checked in at the beginning of class and offered comforting words. They let us know they were available for us if we needed anything–even if we just needed someone to talk to. President Kim Phipps sent out a video message on Thursday morning–the day testing was set to begin–with encouragement and clarification. She assured us that no, Messiah was not on the verge of closing and no, the swabs the nurses were going to use would not go all the way up to our brain. Over the next few days Messiah students made their way to Brubaker Auditorium during their assigned time slot. On a normal year chapel services would be held in Brubaker twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Instead of rows of chairs and drowsy students, Brubaker showcased lines of X’s, spaced 6 feet apart, two giant jugs of hand sanitizer at the doors, and busy nurses donning lab coats and masks. Heading to the auditorium last Thursday morning felt both familiar and strange, but mostly just strange.

A few days after testing was completed, we received another email blast. “Check your mass emails!!” Emily Decker texted in our house group chat. “2,254 tests and only one positive!!!!!!” The bricks that had been weighing on my shoulders all week clattered to the floor. After a week of tension and uncertainty and strangeness, I could finally breathe again. Only one positive out of over two thousand tests–nothing short of a miracle. All the girls in my house were safe and healthy, and none of us even had to quarantine. God is so good.

Out of the Zoo: Building Bridges

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about her church’s journey toward racial reconciliation—JF

On June 14, 2020, I logged into my laptop and connected it to my family’s living room television for our weekly Sunday morning church live stream. Nibbling on my strawberry toaster strudel and trying not to drip the icing on the journal I use for sermon notes, I watched the pre-service announcement slides cycle-through on the screen. My parents settled into their usual spots on the couch as we waited for the five-minute countdown to reach zero. I was still in my pajamas. It seemed like a regular Sunday.

The break from normalcy came after the first worship set came to close. Pastor Bryan Tema took the stage, but the typical table he usually uses during sermons was replaced by two armchairs. “Today is a very unique day in that we are going to have a conversation,” he explained. Pastor Michael Brown, the CEO and President of the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, would be joining us to talk about what’s been going on in the news–but not about politics or the coronavirus pandemic. Pastor Brown, Tema explained, would be leading the congregation in a conversation about race.

Pastor Brown had given sermons at gracespring before, but this time he spoke words I never expected to hear at my church in the middle of Michigan suburbia. He talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, explaining that using the term “All Lives Matter” is like spraying a fire hose on a whole neighborhood when only one house is burning. Pastor Brown shared his own weariness, expressing that people of color in the United States are just plain tired of the way they’ve been treated. He pointed out that in order for meaningful change to take place, we’re going to have to shake things up. We’re going to have to leave our comfort zones.

At the end of the service, Pastor Tema offered a next step. Whoever was interested in learning more about racial reconciliation was invited to participate in a virtual book club led by my old youth pastor, Kenneth Price and his wife Monica. I signed up the very next day. Over the next several weeks, we progressed through Latasha Morrison’s book, Be the Bridge. Like during Pastor Brown’s sermon, in the book club I heard words–like “white privilege,” “microaggressions,” and “whitewashing”–that I never thought would be uttered at church. Three generations of congregants gathered over Zoom every Wednesday night to learn how to lament our nation’s racist past, confess our own stereotypes and complacency, repent and seek reconciliation. We learned how to build bridges of racial reconciliation and even talked about how our church, our “family” as Kenneth puts it, can continue to build more bridges in the weeks, months, and years to come. 

This is what the Church is supposed to look like. Brothers and sisters in Christ coming together with open hands and open hearts, ready to listen and learn. Believers seeking justice instead of passively accepting injustice. Christ-followers refusing to shy away from conversations because they’re uncomfortable or because the work of reconciliation is too hard. Family members celebrating diversity, seeking understanding, and spurring one another toward love and good works.

Ten weeks later, my Be the Bridge book club has finally come to an end. I actually finished the last two weeks of the study from the basement of Messiah University’s Harbor House. I’m not sure what my next major steps will be on this journey, but until I do I’ll keep studying history and reading The Hate U Give. I’m not sure what the future holds for gracespring either, but I pray this summer will prove a catalyst for a family-wide journey towards racial reconciliation.

Out of the Zoo: Back to School

IMG_20200825_145436125Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes  about her return to Messiah University. —JF

“Our primary goal is to keep campus open.” 

The weighty words hung in the air like dust near a sunny window. My housemates and I gathered in our basement as Wyatt Sattazahn, our Assistant Resident Director, hosted a mandatory back-to-campus meeting on Zoom. Along with the typical exchange of contact information and the reminders about parking passes and roommate agreements, Wyatt explained Messiah’s reopening plan. He talked to us about proper mask-wearing techniques and emphasized the importance of social distancing. There will be no visitation in any capacity (for at least two weeks), no large gatherings, and no unmasked interactions (outside of “nuclear family” units). Wyatt’s addendum didn’t catch me by surprise, but it did remind me of the sacrifices my peers and I will need to continue to make in order for Messiah University to remain open for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Whether we like it or not, sacrifices are vital in order for communities to flourish. We Messiah students have been reminded of this fact several times this year already. But we learn the same lesson from history, and from the Christian faith. In the eighteenth-century, when American colonists thought Britain had burdened them with an unjust tax, they banded together and sacrificed their preferences for imported British luxury goods. Two centuries later, in order to strike an important blow against segregation in Alabama, Montgomery’s black community sacrificed the convenience of riding the city bus for over a year.

Additionally, as followers of Christ, we know from Philippians 2:4 that we are not to look out for our own interests only, but also for the interests of others. We are called to put others’ needs before our own. We do this not because it is easy or fun or comfortable, but because it’s the example that Christ has set for us. May 2020 will be remembered as the year we sacrificed our own preferences for the health and safety of others.

My life “Out of the Zoo” will look a lot different this year. Messiah’s campus, once plastered with posters advertising Union dances, free concerts and festivals, is now decorated with one-way signage and reminders about social distancing. Instead of dealing solely with the “syllabus shock” that normally comes with the first week of classes, I now have a global health crisis to worry about. Young Life, which largely involves attending high school sporting events and large gatherings of students, will have to continue to be creative about finding a safe and healthy way to bring the gospel to kids. There will likely be fewer visiting speakers, movie nights, and history club events for me to write about and reflect on for this column. |

Yet with everything that’s changing, some things will remain the same. I am confident that my professors will continue to offer high-quality teaching, guidance, and relationships despite circumstances that are far from ideal. I will continue to learn–from my classes, from my experiences, and from my friends. I will dive deep into the study of the past and seek to understand how it informs this tumultuous present. And as we all learn, grow, and make sacrifices for the common good, the Lord will continue to be faithful.

Night four at the 2020 DNC convention

Biden nominee

It was a great night for the Democratic Party. I don’t think they could have done this convention any better. Frankly, it may have been more effective than a traditional arena convention. The GOP has a tough act to follow.

Below are a few thoughts, based on some of my live-tweeting.

Let’s start with the segment on Biden’s Christian faith:

A few thousand white evangelicals from Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Arizona might decide this election:

But here is a way that Democrats can keep more white evangelicals after November 2020:

Delaware Senator Chris Coons gave a good speech that echoed yesterday’s Fox News op-ed on Biden’s faith. But Coons did not address anything I wrote about in the tweets above. If Biden can address these issues between now and November he could win a record number of white evangelicals. He could easily connect his platform to a real conversation about abortion. The religious liberty stuff will be a little more difficult without offending the left-wing of the party.

Let’s move on to history.

I am still waiting for someone to tell me when the last time a historian spoke in a prime time slot at a political convention.  Jon Meacham was excellent:

So please take the following tweet in that context:

My historian students–both at Messiah University and the Gilder-Lehrman
“Princeton Seminar”–know that the roots of the United States are located in more than just the British settlements.

And as long as we are talking about history:

You can also do a lot of other things with a history major.

The segment with Biden’s Democratic primary rivals was amazing. I could have watched another hour of this conversation. As Cory Booker said, it was like the show with all the contestants “voted off the island” on “Survivor”:

A quick thought on Michael Bloomberg’s speech:

Not all evangelical celebrities support Donald Trump:

Biden gave a great speech. I appreciated his call to find one’s “purpose” in life.

The exact quote was: “As God’s children each of us have a purpose in our lives.”

And the following:

I was also pleased to see this speech seasoned with the words “hope,” “humility,” and “history.” I feel like I’ve heard those words before. 🙂

Here is the Seamus Heaney quote from “The Cure at Troy” that Biden used in the speech:

History says,

Don’t hope on this side of the grave,

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme

The next verse (which Biden did not use in the speech) reads:

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

Read Biden’s entire speech here.

Back in the Zoo: 1920 Meets 2020

1920 meets 2020Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes  about a recent visit to North America’s largest auto museum during a pandemic. —JF

North America’s largest auto museum is ten minutes away from my house. However, despite its close proximity to my childhood residence, I’ve only been there a handful of times. Evidently my parents took me there when I was in a stroller, but I don’t remember it one bit.  I have a vague memory of attending a graduation party in a white tent on the museum’s lawn, and a much clearer one of getting a side-splitting cramp on a cross country course that stretched around its 90-acre grounds. Yet it wasn’t until very recently that I explored the Gilmore Car Museum for myself.

Shortly after I returned to Michigan in March, museums and other non-essential businesses closed due to COVID-19 and the Gilmore Car Museum was no exception. Three months later, with Barry County in phase four of six in Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Safe Start plan, the institution has re-opened with stringent social distancing measures in place. Looking for something new to do after months of lockdown, curious about what it would be like to visit a socially distanced museum, and suddenly eager to explore the piece of local history immortalized just ten minutes from my house, I decided to make the six-mile trip on a Saturday afternoon. 

With several barns and buildings filled with exhibits and over 400 vintage automobiles, the Gilmore Car Museum is a sight to behold. In one building you can see the first Model A ever produced, which Henry Ford gave to his friend Thomas Edison hot off the assembly line. Another car barn–my personal favorite–houses the “Women Who Motor” exhibit. In addition to an antique Shell gas station and a walk-through timeline of automation in the museum’s main building, Gilmore also displays a mint green Cadillac that I think looks just like Flo from the Pixar movie Cars.

While I was impressed by the exhibits at the museum, I was even more impressed with Gilmore’s strict adherence to social distancing guidelines. When they weren’t answering our questions or directing us through the exhibits (from 6 feet away of course), the limited museum staff kept themselves busy cleaning exhibits and highly-trafficked areas. With the exception of an occasional held door, museum patrons were also diligent about maintaining six feet of social distance. Signs, hand sanitizing stations, and floor markings reminded us of our duty to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy. With the exception of two teenage girls who pulled their masks back over their faces when we came into view, virtually everyone at the museum wore face coverings. I saw more masks there than I’ve seen at the grocery store, the gas station, and the restaurant where I get take-out. 

Unlike hand sanitizer and toilet paper, there’s no shortage of people calling 2020 a historic time. We look back at the moments of our past and catalogue the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the terrorist attacks of 9/11, World War II, and other events that have shaped the nation. Even standing in the middle of a reconstructed past at the Gilmore Car Museum, walking alongside Henry Ford and Thomas Edison and many 20th century automobile-collectors, I was constantly reminded–by the masks, the signs, the floor markings–of our nation’s present moment. The world looked a lot different in 1920 than it does today, and that’s a strange, beautiful, and fascinating thing.

As we continue in our own historic time, we need to remember to check our rear-view mirrors every once in a while.  Often times looking back and tracing our steps is the best way to chart a course forward. Delving into our past through research, books, even socially-distanced museums can help us stand our ground even in the most tumultuous times. In order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been.

Back in the Zoo: “Essential”

Annie at Greenhouse

About 15 years ago, I visited Westrate’s Greenhouse with my family. Now, I’m employed there as an essential worker.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about her experience as an “essential worker.” –JF

A little over two weeks ago, I became an essential worker. I finished my last virtual exam on a Friday afternoon and reported for duty at a local greenhouse on the following Monday morning. Some might be surprised that greenhouses are considered essential businesses, especially those that don’t grow food. Surely we can survive without decorative plants in our gardens or baskets hanging from our front porches, but as an agricultural enterprise the greenhouse at which I am employed has not been forced to shut its doors. Further, quarantine has made gardeners out of many of us–my family included–so I’ve had no trouble keeping busy at work.

I never thought I would be an essential worker. After all, I’m not battling the coronavirus first hand in a hospital or re-stocking shelves with toilet paper and cleaning supplies. I’m not sewing masks or making difficult decisions regarding the public health of my community. I’m really just moving flowers around, and planting some every once in a while. Yet I’m going to work every day during a time when many are still stuck at home, so “essential worker” is a label I bear.

There’s no mistaking that labeling some goods and services “essential,” while deeming others “non-essential” has created controversy. Protestors gather weekly across the nation to voice their complaints. Many express their frustration over social media that abortion clinics and news agencies remain open while small businesses and hair salons stay closed. Last week President Trump declared churches and other places of worship essential, and therefore exempt from social distancing rules. Other businesses, like greenhouses growing flowers for instance, stay open even though they’re not necessarily needed to sustain human life. Evidently, the term “essential” is not as straight-forward as it seems.

However, deeming some goods essential and others non-essential is not a new practice. Nearly 80 years ago when the United States fought in World War II, many of the nation’s factories were converted to the production of military items for the Allies. Luxury goods like musical instruments were deemed non-essential and produced in limited quantities–if at all. Thousands of Americans, many of them women, left their households and became essential homefront workers; not only did they help manufacture critical supplies for the war, but they also made do without certain non-essential items that took the back burner during war-time.

Way back in my junior year of high school, I interviewed an incredible woman named Irene Stearns for a National History Day project. Irene (who I wrote about in one of my first blog posts) lived through the Great Depression and World War II. In a way, she lived through her own “unprecedented time” long before this one. Irene worked for Gibson Guitar in Kalamazoo, a factory that earned three Army-Navy E awards of Excellence in wartime production. During World War II, Gibson produced intricate screw machine products, glider skids, and machine gun products–all “essential” products the military needed during the war. But Irene did not produce any of these items. Instead, she coiled guitar strings for the thousands of less-essential musical instruments Gibson produced under the radar between 1941 and 1945.  While not deemed essential, I like to think that the strings Irene crafted went on to play music that brightened many dark days.

I’m still wrestling with what it means to be an essential worker. I still don’t think my job is nearly as important as those “on the front lines.” But like Irene, I go to work and do my part, however small. I’m not making masks or machine gun parts, but I like to think that the flowers I help grow may go on to brighten many dark days.

Back in the Zoo: The Church Has Left the Building

FB_IMG_1532791182356 (1)Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about what it means to be the church in the midst of a global pandemic–JF

Back in 2018, the summer after my Senior year of high school, I went on one last service trip with my youth group. I had spent all year on my church’s leadership team and looked forward to spending one final week with my Gracespring family before moving away for school. My friend Becca and I were in charge of the Vacation Bible School portion of the trip, and we had been busy writing lessons and planning activities for the kids that we would meet in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Before loading up in our caravan of vehicles, we posed in front of a few dozen parents and family members snapping pictures of us on their smartphones. Our shirts were red with bold black script reading “The Church Has Left the Building.” We tossed around a few different ideas for the shirts, but I was glad we settled on this one. The saying reminded us that the Church was not the building we worshiped in. Instead, we were the Church, the body of Christ meant to go out and do his work in the world. 

Nearly two years later, churches around the world have also “left the building.” Ever since our governor limited large gatherings back in March, my church–the same church that sent me to Pawleys Island back in 2018–has been using the phrase on repeat. For even on Easter, when sanctuaries are usually packed with congregants gussied up in pastel-colored wares, pews were empty and doors remained closed. Some still dressed up and took family photos in their living rooms, others stayed in their pajamas and streamed a service from their couches, but almost everyone stayed home.

Obviously, this is not an ideal situation. We like worshiping alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. We look forward to chatting with them after the service. We cherish having a place where we can gather, socialize, and drink a cup of coffee. We appreciate packed-out sanctuaries, well-executed sermons and meticulously planned music sets. It’s certainly not wrong to enjoy these things, or to long for the day when we can have them again. But we must understand that they are not the Church–we are.

I love the book of Acts. Maybe it’s because I’m a historian, or maybe it’s because Acts was the first book of the Bible I read after re-committing my life to Christ, but I could read stories of Paul, the apostles, and the early Church over and over again. Sometimes when we study the past, or read Bible stories, they seem foreign and strange to us. But more often than not, we catch glimpses of familiarity too. Two thousand years ago when the Church was just getting started there were no coffee shops or praise bands or packed-out sanctuaries. When Paul brought the Gospel to the Gentiles he couldn’t do it from the stage of a megachurch. Instead, he shared the love of Christ wherever he was. He was creative, he was zealous, and he was bold. He wasn’t quarantined at home, but he was jailed, beaten, and shipwrecked–and let nothing hinder his witness.

Acts reminds us that the Church is so much more than the place we worship. It shows us that we can share the Gospel no matter where we are. It assures us that Christ’s love can not be hindered by any hardship, trial, or global pandemic. May historians remember 2020 as the year the Church left the building.

Back in the Zoo: Coronavirus Diary

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The sunsets have been particularly beautiful here since quarantine started. Perhaps I’m just noticing them more now, or perhaps God knows I often need to be reminded how capable he is of turning darkness into light.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie shares some thoughts from her coronavirus diary–JF

If I have a history classroom of my own in a few years, I’m sure I will teach my students about the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020. For while the virus is consuming virtually every part of our lives right now, soon enough it will be a part of our history. Soon enough students, teachers, and historians will look back on our Facebook posts, television advertisements, and journals to speculate what it was like to live through it all. I’ve started collecting primary sources to use in my classroom someday, and have even written a few diary entries of my own. If you would like to help future historians, future history teachers, and future students, I suggest keeping a journal, a diary, anything that will help them step into your shoes and see the world through your eyes.

Professor Fea has posted a couple coronavirus diary entries, so I thought I’d give it a go. Here’s my diary entry from yesterday, April 14, 2020:

It’s been a little over three weeks since Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued her shelter-in-place order for the state of Michigan. I’m becoming numb to it all in some ways, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I used to obsessively check Michigan’s case count multiple times a day, my anxiety heightening as the virus crept closer and closer to my hometown. Three weeks ago, 200 new cases in a day caused a panic. Last week there were 200 deaths in one day in my state and I kind of just numbly accepted that this is the way the world is right now.

I’ve been trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, as much as I can during this strange time. I get up at 6 A.M. and go to sleep around 10 P.M., just like I did when I was still at Messiah College. Before my first Zoom session of the day I try to do an hour and a half or so of work for this job. All of my Professors have been using video chat instead of pre-recorded lectures, so my class schedule has stayed pretty much the same too. My boyfriend and I still Skype every Friday and Sunday, just like we do when we’re nine hours apart. I can’t say all couples are listening to social distancing guidelines right now, but the ones that are have certainly been facing new challenges they never thought they would have to deal with. Nolan and I are frustrated we can’t see each other, but we realize that over a year of long-distance has left us surprisingly prepared to face a global pandemic.

A few new habits have made their way into my life too. My family has started “supporting local businesses”–that is, ordering takeout from local restaurants–once a week on Saturdays. Since I no longer have access to a gym, I’ve started running outside instead of on the treadmill. It’s more challenging to run on hills and in all kinds of weather, rather than on a flat conveyor belt in the temperate climate of the Falcon Fitness Center, but running is especially comforting for me right now. It reminds me that every breath is a gift, and to be thankful that I have healthy lungs with air flowing through them. I’m also trying to text people more often, usually with a song, a few words of encouragement, or a couple verses from scripture. It isn’t much, but I know from personal experience that a simple check-in or a few positive words can go a long way.

Quarantine brings out the creativity in all of us. We pick up new hobbies, and come back to old ones. We discover new ways to keep in touch with our friends, even when we can’t be physically together. My Young Life team has found several creative ways to use Zoom in order to stay connected with our students. We had a scavenger hunt, a talent show, an area-wide trivia match, and we’re even in the process of planning a virtual Bingo tournament for next week. Last weekend my parents tried to find a way to play Euchre over video chat with my brother and his girlfriend. I see families building blanket forts, hosting movie marathons, and competing in kahoot tournaments. And not only that, musicians have been giving free, live concerts over social media, churches are streaming their worship services, and Tom Hanks even hosted Saturday Night Live from his home last weekend.

For the first time in several weeks, it seems like there might be an end in sight. Some speculate that the United States has passed the virus’s peak. Gretchen Whitmer cautiously told Michiganders yesterday that they’re starting to see the curve flatten and the case total stabilize. We don’t know when the end to all this will come, or even what an “end” would entail, but we sense that it’s there somewhere. My family and I are continuing to press into the Lord, to continuously remind ourselves that He is in control and somehow, some way will use it all for His glory. So now we wait, in this period of forced rest, for the world to go back to normal. What that “normal” will be, I’m still not so sure.

Back in the Zoo: The Hidden History of Battle Creek

ellen white at gc session 1901

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about finding history in her own backyard.  –JF

Rumor has it, if you walk around in downtown Battle Creek you can smell cereal wafting through the streets. Home to Kellogg’s, Post, and Raltson foods, Battle Creek well-deserves the nickname “Cereal City.”  Battle Creek is also home to Binder Park Zoo, where you can feed giraffes pieces of lettuce in the summer or go trick-or-treating at the annual “Zoo Boo” in the fall. It also has my favorite grocery store, Horrocks, and an indoor water park where kids used to have their birthday parties.

I usually don’t advertise that I’m from Battle Creek. In fact, in the very name I chose for this column, I pledge my allegiance to Kalamazoo, not “Cereal City,” which lies about 25 miles to the east. In reality, I live in Augusta which is half-way between the two towns. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Battle Creek. My church, my school, my grandma’s house were all in Kalamazoo, so I just have a lot more memories there. And, after a year studying at Messiah College I’ve discovered most people haven’t heard of Battle Creek, much less know where it is. Plus, you have to admit that “Out of Battle Creek” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

So, as you can imagine, I was pretty surprised when Battle Creek came up in my “Origins Controversy” class last Friday. It was my first Zoom session of the day, and my professor Dr. Ted Davis was lecturing on the history of scientific creationism. A few slides into his presentation, Dr. Davis introduced us to Ellen G. White, who co-founded the Seventh-day Adventist church and was one of the first to vocally advocate for the young-earth, 24-hour day creation view held by Ken Ham and his team at Answers in Genesis today. While her ideas didn’t really take off outside Seventh-day Adventist circles until George McCready Price and later Henry Morris wrote about them, she remains an important figure in American religious history. Not only that, she was a strong and influential female leader in a time when women still hadn’t gained the right to vote. 

Next,  Professor Davis showed us the black-and-white photograph reciprocated above, of E. G. White at a podium, Bible open, speaking to a congregation of men. He asked us to read the description to find out where it was taken. Much to my surprise, the caption read “Battle Creek Tabernacle,” and I excitedly told my class that Battle Creek was only 30 minutes away from my house. Professor Davis continued by explaining that Battle Creek played an important role in the development of the Seventh-day Adventist church, and that the denomination had even founded a college in Michigan. Davis went on to mention that the Kelloggs were also Seventh-day Adventists who first produced cereal as a vegetarian alternative to a traditional breakfast–many Adventists back then chose not to eat meat. 

I finished class that day excited about all the history that took place practically in my backyard. I couldn’t believe that I had grown up twelve miles from Battle Creek and had no idea who Ellen G. White was. My house is even closer to the Kellogg Manor House, yet I had never bothered to learn much about the family’s history. I was blind to the rich history my community had to offer. 

Every community, big or small, has a history. It has a history because it has people–people who lived and worked and impacted other people in a world far different from our own. Sometimes that history is not easy to find, but I challenge you to look for it. You don’t have to live in Gettysburg or New York City or Paris to dig up some fascinating information about your community’s past. There’s history all around you. Sometimes you just need to open your eyes.

Back In The Zoo: Trust in the Valley

Erasmus Club dinner

Messiah students engaged in discussion at the latest Erasmus Club dinner with Dr. Bernardo Michael. Photo by Keanan Wolf

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about a recent discussion with fellow history major about COVID-19 –JF

How will COVID-19 be remembered in 50 years? What about 100 years? What about 500?

Will future generations condemn us for the way we handled the pandemic? Will they look down on us for not doing enough? How will the hardships we experience today compare to the sufferings experienced by the generations that came before us?

I don’t have answers to these questions, and I’m not convinced anyone does right now. Yet, it is these questions, and many more, that we wrestled with at the history department’s Erasmus Club dinner earlier this month. We pushed two round tables together in Martin Commons, piled our plates with various dining-hall entrees and began our discussion. We were supposed to discuss the intersection of history and memory, but within minutes our conversation veered off course and steered toward the coronavirus. No one consciously tried to bring it up, but because COVID-19 was already on everyone’s minds the topic was inevitable. The Saturday before the dinner, I found out that the first two cases of coronavirus had been discovered in Pennsylvania. Now, three weeks later, there are a few thousand cases in Pennsylvania and my home state of Michigan is a week and a half into a stay-at-home order. It’s crazy how fast things change.

How will I remember COVID-19? Right now it’s hard to be sure. Cases are still rising, the markets are still plummeting, and it’s hard to tell just how big of an impact it will have on my life, and on the lives of the people I love. I have never experienced anything like this in my entire life, and neither have my parents or my grandparents. It seems like whenever I think I have a grip on what’s going on, things change yet again.

But in the midst of all the uncertainty, I am sure of one thing: I worship a God who is working all things out for my good and his glory. At the beginning of the year, I started reading this book called Trusting God by Jerry Bridges. My boyfriend and I started it as a kind of New-Year’s resolution for the two of us. The book is all about trusting that God is in control, even when bad things happen. Even when we lose our job, even when our vacation is rudely interrupted, even when death and disease run rampant, God is still sovereign and worthy of our confidence. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God doesn’t promise that bad things won’t happen. As long as we live on this side of eternity, there will be trials, there will be suffering, and there will be tears. But he does promise to be with us through it all. He promises us peace and strength to endure. He tells us that when our foundations are shaken, when the world falls apart before us, He still remains. Isaiah 41:10 says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” 

I hope that future historians will be able to look at this season in my life and see that I trusted God with everything. I hope they will see that I chose to trust God even when it wasn’t easy, even when I didn’t feel like it, even when my heart ached. I am not there yet, but I hope I will get there someday. Will you join me?

Out of the Zoo: National History Day

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Messiah’s state qualifiers. Photo by Chloe Kauffman.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about her experience at this year’s regional National Day competition–JF

National History Day is a non-profit organization that encourages thousands of kids to engage with the past each year. Students pick a topic connected to an annual theme, research it for several months, and then find some creative way to present their findings to the public–through an exhibit, performance, documentary, website, or paper. Students who put together a particularly excellent project can proceed to the regional, state, or even national levels of the competition. Every year, Messiah College hosts one of the 12 regional NHD contests in the state of Pennsylvania. Messiah students, professors, and community members all pull together to evaluate the several hundred projects that come through the doors in what feels like a big history pep rally. To read what I wrote about NHD last year, click here.

I love National History Day for a lot of reasons. For one, it gives kids the chance to research something they’re passionate about. Competing in National History Day also introduces students to the kind of history that involves active inquiry and detective work, rather than monotonous memorization of names and dates. It allows students to explore the past in a creative, active way. National History Day shows middle and high school students that history is not a closed issue–it is something that is continually done and redone, with real relevance to the present. On top of all this, NHD gives Messiah’s history department the opportunity to reach hundreds of members of our community.

National History Day also gives me a glimpse of what my life might look like in a few years. The day before Messiah hosted its History Day competition last week, I sat on my dorm-room floor and read through the eight junior (middle school) research papers that I would be judging. As I scanned each paper and wrote comments on my evaluation sheets, I imagined helping my students with their own projects someday. I imagined advising them on their topic choices, pointing them towards primary sources, and encouraging them to research what they’re passionate about. The next day, as students and their families buzzed around Boyer Hall and the High Center, I pictured corralling my students and making sure they get to their judging sessions on time. As one teacher excitedly knelt in the aisle to photograph his students when their names were announced at the awards ceremony, I imagined cheering at the top of my lungs in support of my own students’ success. 

Judging NHD is helpful for me–and for any future history teacher for that matter–because it reveals the many challenges students face when doing their own research. It allows me to brainstorm ways I’ll encourage and push my students to try their hardest and to engage in the historical process in the future. It forces me to think about what I’ll say to my students when they’re frustrated or discouraged or feel like giving up. I even started a list. It’s far from complete, but here’s what I have so far:

  1. Research is hard. It can be frustrating sometimes. Some days you will spend hours looking for a source that isn’t there. Other days you might spend thirty minutes rewriting the same sentence over and over again before it sounds right. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad researcher or a bad writer–it’s all part of the process.
  2. History isn’t just about reporting facts–it’s about telling stories and analyzing those facts.
  3. When you come to the end of a research project, you’re now the expert on your topic. You now know more about some area of history than 99% of the rest of the people in the world. No matter where you end up placing in the competition, that’s something to be incredibly proud of!
  4. And most importantly: practice makes perfect.

Out of the Zoo: “World War III”

World War IIIAnnie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie challenges us to take war seriously.  -JF

About a month and a half ago, after President Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the Iranian government promised retribution, the internet briefly exploded with fears of a third world war. I remember opening twitter on my computer to see that  “#WorldWar3” was trending worldwide. American teenagers were the primary culprits of the trend, for they (in true Generation Z fashion) took to social media to express angst about their “impending doom.” They posted memes comparing Soleimani to Franz Ferdinand, and filmed tik-tok videos joking about how they and their peers would respond to a draft. It took me a few minutes of Google searching to be assured that the possibility of a third world war was rather unlikely; yet I was struck by how quickly young people like me turned to social media to craft fears of World War III into a budding internet trend. It was curious to me that my peers could so easily make light of an escalating national crisis, even one with a potentially devastating outcome.

This semester at Messiah College I’m taking a class on Europe in the twentieth century. Over the past week we’ve been reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a fictional story which details the experience of a World War I soldier through the eyes of its twenty-year-old narrator Paul Bäumer. Not much older than most culprits of the “#WorldWar3” social media trend, Paul witnesses the gruesome tragedies of war first-hand as a volunteer in the German army.

In one chapter Paul describes a man crying out from no-man’s land for days on end, never to be found despite several search parties. In another chapter Paul stabs a Frenchman who falls into his shell-hole. He is unable to escape his hiding place in the daylight and is thus forced to watch him die a slow, agonizing death. Later still, Paul gets injured and makes his way to hospital nearby, where men with amputated limbs, tetanus, lung wounds, abdominal injuries, and a host of other atrocities are carted off to the “death room.”  They never return. Paul and his comrades hearts’ are quickly hardened by the horrors of war—poisonous gas, trench rats, exploding shells and meaningless death after meaningless death. 

Did teenagers growing up in 20th-century Europe joke about World War I? Did they make light of international crisis by laughing about it with their friends? They didn’t have twitter or tik-tok, but did they too cope with wisecracks about their impending doom? There are several instances of humor woven throughout All Quiet on the Western Front, but for the most part the book reminds us that war is no laughing matter. It reminds us that World War I brought fear, death, and destruction on a scale wider than anyone expected. What went through the minds of nineteen-year-old boys when they volunteered for the war, or were drafted? Did they laugh? Were they hopeful, or were they just plain terrified?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, nor do I quite know how to reconcile my peers’ naive response to threats of world war with the actual experiences of young men and women whose lives were turned upside-down by global conflict just over a hundred years ago. But comparing the two certainly helps put things in perspective.

Out of the Zoo: The Divided States of America

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Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes what about how history helps put our “divided nation” into perspective. –JF

“The United States is more divided than ever.”

It seems like this trope becomes more popular every day. I see it in newspaper articles and read it in Facebook posts. I overhear it on radio broadcasts and in the hallways of my school. Distressed citizens paint dismal pictures of red and blue soldiers steadily marching in opposite directions, stretching the country thin between them. How long will this go on? How long until the once-United States shatters into a million pieces? Will our nation agree on anything ever again? These and many more questions seem to reverberate ever-louder in our ears. The events of the last few weeks–the impeachment trial and Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address–seem to provide dismal answers to such inquiries.

I won’t deny that the United States is divided. Our country is filled with people who don’t appear to have the word “compromise” in their vocabulary. Democrats and Republicans alike villainize their political opponents, all too often pointing out the speck in their enemy’s eye before first removing the log from their own. Venomous words seem to fly through the air like whizzing arrows hurtling towards a target. Yet despite all this, when people assert that the United States is more divided than it has ever been, I can’t help but chuckle.

As a student of history, I know that division in our country is nothing new. Before and during the Revolution, the colonies were split into loyalist and patriot factions. Soon after the war was over George Washington’s own cabinet diverged right before his eyes–feuds between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans resemble the political quarrels of today with striking similarity. 

As a student of history I also know that in terms of national division, things could be worse. They could be much worse. In the years leading up to the Civil War, slavery became such a divisive issue that physical violence often broke out on the Congress floor. For example, on May 22, 1856 South Carolinian Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with a cane, after Sumner scathingly criticized another South Carolina legislator for supporting slavery. In another instance, a fist fight between Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt turned into an all-out brawl with 30 participants. I need not remind most Americans that division over the issue of slavery contributed to the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives during the Civil War.

There’s a lot of things I love about history, but one thing I like most about studying the past is that it gives me scope for the present. It reminds me that things might not always be as bad as people say they are. Life is hard, and I’m not denying that fact. Every day we interact with people who go through hardships we’ll never completely understand. Our country is divided, and I’m not denying that either. But sometimes it’s comforting to know that the struggles we deal with now are not entirely new ones.

Out of the Zoo: Why I Cried in History Class

hamilton curtain callAnnie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects powerfully on the last day of her class on Alexander Hamilton. –JF

Anyone who knows me well knows that it doesn’t take much to make me cry. I shed tears during movies, musicals, worship sets and everything in between. I keep tissues close by at funerals and weddings alike, or if I know I’m going to be laughing really hard. If I’m anxious or overwhelmed, or if someone else is tearing up, I usually cry then too. 

When I took my seat in Frey 241 for the last day of my “Age of Hamilton” class though, I definitely did not expect to be crying by the end. When I entered the room that mid-December morning, the air was thick with excitement. Most of us history majors had finished all of our big assignments for the term, so we could practically taste Christmas break. My friend Chloe chatted excitedly about classmates’ Hamilton research papers, persuading them to let her read their essays in the coming weeks. Even though the fall semester was drawing to a close, Chloe and many others in the class were still hungry to learn everything they could about Alexander Hamilton and the world in which he lived. After wrapping up our discussion of Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr at the beginning of the period, Professor Fea launched into a final lecture designed to bring closure to the fifteen-week class. 

Fea, who played the Hamilton soundtrack frequently throughout the course to complement his lectures, thought it would be fitting to finish the semester with the musical’s last song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” That’s what we historians do, Professor Fea explained to the class. We tell people’s stories. We’re in constant communication with our own world and worlds gone by. No one is around forever, but we as historians make sure they’re remembered once they’re gone. It is our right, and it is our duty. 

Professor Fea pulled up the lyric video for “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” on the projector screen, and the class sat in rare stillness as we watched Lin Manuel Miranda’s words flicker by. It’s impossible to capture the beauty of the song in a few words, but the ballad features several familiar characters voicing their respect for Hamilton and the financial system he created. Hamilton’s wife Eliza steps forward and reveals that she outlived her husband by fifty years. She recounts all the things she’s done to preserve Alexander’s legacy, and even laments that she still may not have done enough. All the while, the ensemble repeatedly voices the song’s title phrase: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

The students who usually spouted-off Hamilton lyrics with passionate fervor were subdued and somber, singing along quietly. I even heard a few lower voices chiming in from the cluster of boys who usually congregated in the back of the room. I hummed along too, thinking about the lyrics–which alone are enough to bring me to tears–and Professor Fea’s speech a few minutes earlier. I thought about the people’s stories I’ve heard, the one’s I’ve shared myself, and all of those that have yet to be uncovered. In those three and a half minutes I was reminded of how grateful I am to give a voice to the voiceless, and how blessed I will be to teach my students to do the same someday. After blinking away a couple joyful tears, I thanked God for giving me this vocation, this duty to tell people’s stories for the rest of my life. 

Sometimes in the midst of final papers and exams I can forget what an important job historians have. We live, we die, but in the meantime we tell people’s stories. We make sure they’re not forgotten. What a beautiful privilege we have.

A Glimpse of Hope

Last night some of my history students showed up at my house singing Christmas carols.  For close to a decade, Messiah College history majors have been caroling at the homes of their professors.  It is a department tradition. We invite them in, give them some food (brownies and cookies this year), and have some conversation.

If you are in search of hope in these dark times, spend time with some really engaged Christian college students.  Our conversation only last about 30 minutes, but we had a great discussion about their experiences in evangelical churches and their attempts to balance critical thinking with membership in their religious communities.

I needed this tonight!

 

Out of the Zoo: The Hedgehog and the Fox

Hedgehog

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects on Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”. –JF

I did a lot of reading this semester. Being a history major, though, I suppose it comes with the territory. Instead of spending hours in the pottery studio like the art majors, or agonizing over lab like STEM students, history majors write and read—a lot. I read John Santrock in Educational Psychology, lots of Sam Wineburg for Teaching History and Social Studies, and many words from the pen of Alexander Hamilton for my Age of Hamilton class. Since the beginning of September I’ve been exposed to a number of different voices, some clear and others confusing, some of which I agree with and others that I don’t. Nonetheless, the challenge of hearing each one out is a task that has surely made me a better writer, student, and novice historian.

One of the first pieces I read this semester was for my Historical Methods class, an essay by Isaiah Berlin titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” I distinctly remember reading it within a few days of arriving on campus, sitting at one of the picnic tables outside Murray Library when it was still warm enough to do so. Pulling from the Greek poet Archilochus who once wrote “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” Berlin thinks that this statement, taken figuratively, describes a great difference that splits writers and thinkers. Some are hedgehogs, Berlin writes, who “relate everything to a single central vision,” who like to simplify their findings and organize them into a neat and concise conclusion. And then there are others, the foxes, who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory,” who dwell in nuances and complexity, who run in the many different directions that their thinking, writing, or researching takes them. 

In my methods class we talked about how, as historians, we think and write and research somewhere between these two sects. For while we may start a project with a central topic, theme or idea in mind, as we do research we are stretched in many different directions. No matter how much we desire to organize all our findings into a thesis statement that’s orderly and decisive, we sometimes must face the reality that the past is often far too complex to do so to our satisfaction. We have the spines of hedgehogs and the fluffy tails of foxes, or so it seems. 

As I wrap up my final papers for the semester (which I have already written about here and here) I am continuing to realize the truth of this assertion. I’ve spent the whole semester knee deep in research–seeking out sources, following leads, falling down rabbit holes–all in an attempt to answer the questions I set out to answer.  But after all my research, I’m realizing that the questions I asked months ago are not so easily answered. I’m realizing that there will always be paths that remain unexplored, questions that go unanswered; yet with due dates fast approaching I must bring my research to some sort of end.

Thus, it is here that I will remain. In the tension between the one and the many, the simple and the complex, I attempt to bring my months of research together into a cohesive whole. I try to bring my outstretched hands together and weave the fringes of my research into some kind of tapestry. I can only hope that my tapestry will be a beautiful one.